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Radio recordings: drama and literature

Radio broadcasts of literary works held in the British Library include readings by many of the greatest twentieth-century writers, adaptations of works originally written as literature or for the stage, and an array of work specially conceived for the broadcast medium.

Poetry and literature

A selection of historic broadcast readings, including such literary masters as W.H. Auden and W.B. Yeats, have been issued by the British Library on CD from a collection dating back to the 1930s. 

Many of the post-1962 recordings were originated by the Library's off-air recording programme and range from the early-1960s arts programme New Comment through to Radio 4's popular 1990s series Poetry Please!. Some of our externally-sourced collections, such as the ILR Programme Sharing Scheme Collection (catalogue no: C1000) include important regional and independent radio productions. 

The African Writers' Club (catalogue no: C134), a collection of independently produced recordings made in London for the BBC's African Service, features work by such acclaimed African writers and performers as Wole Soyinka and Alex La Guma, while the ATCAL Collection (catalogue no: C56) adds readings by notable Caribbean authors.

Literary and stage adaptations

By 1930, British radio was already mounting twice as many productions as London's theatres, amounting by the mid-1940s to over four hundred plays a year and effectively fulfilling the BBC's ambitions for a 'national theatre of the air'. 

The earliest extant recordings are adaptations of literary classics and stage works, such as Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts (1933), or from series such as Stars In Their Courses (1933), and launched a radio tradition which has continued to the present in a diverse stream of productions ranging from Aeschylus to Brecht. Notable examples include Douglas Cleverdon's adaptations of David Jones's In Parenthesis (1955 version) and The Anathemata (1953), the latter considered by Cleverdon to be his greatest achievement as a producer.

Radio drama

The first work conceived specially for radio, Richard Hughes's A Comedy of Danger (1924) initiated an essentially-new medium which has evolved alongside its stage counterpart ever since. Visiting students can approach the subject from a variety of angles: chronologically, thematically or comparatively; in relation to authorship, aspects of production or performance. The collections embrace the medium's most celebrated writers, and the most obscure. The work of Louis MacNeice, Dorothy L. Sayers, Henry Reed, Dylan Thomas, Giles Cooper, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard are all substantially represented. The role of the producers can be similarly examined, with some of the most innovative and influential – Val Gielgud, Donald McWhinnie, Martin Esslin, John Tydeman – all figuring strongly.

The breadth of the collections allows the impact of changing broadcasting policy and priorities through succeeding generations and across different networks to be assessed, while the use of particular studio/production techniques can also be explored.

Hundreds of productions for series such as Thirty Minute Theatre, Sixty Minute Theatre, Afternoon Play and World Theatre are to be found among our BBC Transcription Service collections (1950s-present), while some of the most acclaimed productions of the last two decades are preserved in the prestigious Sony Radio Academy Awards collection (catalogue no: C279).

Serialised drama

British pre-war experiments with serialised drama led to its wartime deployment for propaganda purposes in Laurence Gilliams's The Shadow of the Swastika (1939-), in Val Gielgud's production of Dorothy L. Sayers's The Man Born To Be King (1941-), and in the US-targeted 'soap' Front Line Family (1941-). These in turn spawned such popular post-war detective serials as Dick Barton: Special Agent (1946-), and dailies such as Mrs Dale's Diary and The Archers, many episodes of which survive. The Charles Chilton Collection (C1186) includes some of the 1950s best-remembered radio in this vein – notably his influential sci-fi serial Journey into Space (1953-).

Accessing the collection

To access sound and moving image material:

  • Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
  • The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
  • The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
  • Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
  • The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

Further information

Paul Wilson
Curator, Radio
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7446
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441